'We've Got the Energy:' Military Doctors Relieve Worn-Out Staff in NYC Hospitals

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The patient transport team prepares to receive a patient aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort
The patient transport team prepares to receive a patient aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) on April 2, 2020, while the ship is moored in New York City in support of the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts. Comfort serves as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman)

Military medical staff are departing underused Navy hospital ships and field medical centers to relieve overburdened civilian doctors in New York City's hard-hit hospitals as the coronavirus crisis wears on.

"We're a fresh face, we've got the energy and enthusiasm," said Air Force Col. Jennifer Ratcliff, who has brought medical teams to Lincoln Hospital and Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx.

The staff there "are tired and have been working very, very long days and weeks," said Ratcliff, commander of the 927th Aerospace Medical Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

The Navy's 1,000-bed hospital ship Comfort was sent to the city, arriving at Pier 90 in Manhattan on March 30, to take on the expected overflow of trauma patients from city hospitals as local doctors treated COVID-19 cases. But the patient flow has not materialized, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday.

"The strategy has changed," he said. "We're moving off the Comfort our doctors, a portion of our doctors, and putting them into New York City hospitals to provide relief."

Related: Army Deploys Reserve Medical Specialists to Aid Overwhelmed City Hospitals

He did not give the number of doctors being reassigned from the Comfort, but said a total of 2,100 military physicians, nurses and medical aides are now in the city and will be augmented soon by additional medical teams coming from the Army.

Ratcliff said the military reinforcements have been well-received.

"You can walk around the hospital and just see that the attendings and the residents are really happy to have us," she added.

"We're onboarding hospitals pretty much since we arrived," Navy Capt. Joe Kochan said of the 1,100 volunteer doctors, nurses and medical aides from the reserves who deployed to the city last week.

"As it stands right now, we're really pushing out into the hospitals to support their needs," said Kochan, executive officer of the Operational Health Support Unit based at Portsmouth, Virginia.

When he announced the deployment of medical personnel into the city on April 5, Esper said about 300 would go to 11 city hospitals. It was unclear Tuesday whether that number had increased.

Kochan and Ratcliff joined Army Lt. Col. Leslie Curtis, chief nurse at the 9th Field Hospital out of Fort Hood, Texas, in a telephone conference from New York City to the Pentagon to stress the ongoing needs of the city despite the converted Javits Center and the Comfort being underused thus far.

In addition to the 1,100 medical personnel already deployed, the Army announced plans Monday to send more teams to the city.

Fifteen Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces will be deployed nationwide to assist cities in the fight against coronavirus, and four of those task forces, each consisting of 85 personnel, will be sent to New York City, the Army said.

The military has sought to adjust its efforts in New York City to the shifting requests coming from city and state authorities.

The original intent was to have the Comfort and a field medical facility at the Javits Convention Center treat non-COVID-19 patients to ease some of the burden on overcrowded local hospitals. But the demand to treat non-COVID patients did not emerge in a city on lockdown.

The city then asked that the Comfort and the Javits Center be used only for COVID-19 patients, and the military agreed, but bureaucratic and logistical problems hindered the transfer of patients.

COVID-19 patients first had to be taken to local hospitals to be screened, but the agreement now is to have ambulances take patients directly to the Javits Center or the Comfort.

As of Monday, about 320 patients were at the 1,500-bed capacity Javits Center. The last report Friday from the Pentagon on the Comfort said that there were more than 50 patients aboard the 1,000-bed ship.

Curtis, who has been working at the Javits Center, acknowledged the delays in bringing in patients. "First, we had to determine what the needs were," she said. Then, the focus turned to "streamlining the bureaucracy, which everyone wants to do at every level."

"Every day, we're finding more ways," she said. "I think this is moving in the right direction.

"We do want to do this. We have the ability to scale up to whatever the demands are, based on the needs of the city or any particular mission that is required," Curtis added.

There has been speculation that the Comfort might be pulled out of New York City and sent elsewhere, but Ratcliff said she had seen no signs that the military's efforts in the city would slacken.

"The city, I believe, still needs our assets," she said. "I don't think there's talk of scaling that back but, again, we'll do whatever the government of New York needs."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday described a city still in need of support despite continuing signs that new coronavirus cases had hit a plateau.

"We're reducing the rate of infection," he said. But another 778 deaths from coronavirus were recorded in the city Monday.

"That is terrible, terrible, terrible news," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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